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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The Polish Way

When you’re raised in a given culture you take it for granted. You don’t really question all those strange superstitions or sayings until you change your surroundings to an international community and until your friends start asking “Oh I read/heard that you have this saying in Polish, is it true?”

I was born and raised in Poland. And let me tell you, although the whole world is moving forward and becoming more rational, Poland has such a deep-rooted need to believe in something, that superstitions are as alive as ever. Although a recent research has shown that only around 54% of Polish people believe in at least one superstition I am pretty sure that this number should be much higher for the simple reason that plenty of people believe in something, but they do not want to acknowledge it as a superstition. Ask any Polish person whether their mum puts her bag on the floor. In my family house this is the worst crime and I am pretty sure this is the case for all Polish mums. Why? Because the money “will run away”. But officially no one would name it as superstition (I mean it’s common knowledge, isn’t it?).

With some superstitions I am at least able to partially explain where they came from. When you spill salt somewhere that means there will be a huge fight in the family. However, one can understand it if we think about the fact that salt used to be a very luxurious good in the past and wasting it would indeed result in quarrels. But you can take back the bad effect of spilled salt by grabbing it and throwing it behind your left shoulder. Why would that work? God knows. One should also grab a button when they spot a chimney sweep, because it is supposed to bring you luck. When we look once again at historical reasons – it does make sense, since the ‘heating’ and usability of fireplace in the house was dependent on the sweep. But why we even grab a button? Good question, probably because it’s associated with some kind of talisman, which again does not explain much.

But there is also this separate category of Polish beliefs, that I cannot explain at all (but some I follow myself), to which the example of putting your bag on the floor belongs. To give you yet another example, when I came back home for Christmas break my mum asked what I got my boyfriend for Christmas, to which I replied that along with another gift I got him a pair of cosy Christmas socks. She almost got angry at my inanity. I mean isn’t it obvious that giving socks or shoes to your loved ones will result in them walking away? Well, for Polish people apparently it should be. Especially since I have made the mistake once already, when I gave my best friend high heels as a gift (but don’t worry, she’s still here).

But there’s more. To name a few, you can’t greet people directly on your doorstep (since in Poland we believe that it’s a border between your safe home and the bad outside world). You also have to carry carp’s scales in your wallet (that you usually would have after Christmas dinner), as they are supposed to protect the money you already have and bring even more (if you don’t believe me, feel free to ask me – I have like 3 in my wallet. But unfortunately, student life does not help with money-bringing superstitions).

At this point you are probably seriously wondering why we even believe in this stuff or how on earth all those superstitions survived. Well, I would like to know it myself. I would assume that one can try to explain it in two ways. Firstly, I would assume that it has something to do with the deeply rooted traditions and how long those beliefs have indeed been in Polish homes. Why do I put those scales in my wallet? Because that’s something I’ve been doing all my life. Is it smart or reasonable…? Surely it’s not but at least I am aware of it, which is not the case for most Polish people that do believe in this stuff. That leads me to the second explanation which is closely connected with the socio-psychological phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which expectations will come true just because people believe they will. But in reality, the phenomenon is reversed when it comes to superstitions – things happen on their own, but if e.g. a person loses money at a given point, I am sure a Polish mum would blame it on the fact that they put their bag on the floor. People attribute effects of the superstitions they believe in, to occurrences that would happen either way but this way we only make those beliefs stronger. It’s no surprise that my grandparents believe in them having learnt them from their parents. No surprise that my parents know them and I also wouldn’t be too surprised if one day I ask my kids to carry those (completely useless) carp scales in their wallet, just for the sake of keeping this tradition alive.


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